Monday, May 31, 2010

Christe eleison…

Jesus, the Blessed One, mourns. Jesus mourns when his friend Lazarus dies (see John 11:33-36); he mourns when he overlooks the city of Jerusalem, soon to be destroyed (see Luke 19:41-44). Jesus mourns over all losses and devastations that fill the human heart with pain. He grieves with those who grieve and sheds tears with those who cry.

The violence, greed, lust, and so many other evils that have distorted the face of the earth and its people causes the Beloved Son of God to mourn. We too have to mourn if we hope to experience God's consolation.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Tears can be a gift of the Holy Spirit.  At the point when you can’t achieve the game of perfection, all you can do is offer to God who you are today, warts and all.  Your willingness to offer your imperfect gift, knowing it will be totally received, brings you to tears—“holy tears.”  There are many gifts of tears, however; sometimes you just cry for the pain and suffering of others, even though you yourself are not suffering at all.  I am sure most of you have experienced such holy tears, maybe even today when we remember the many who have died so young, so alone, and sometimes so needlessly.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gate... Seeing God in All Things
(Winter Conference 2010)

Once I wrote:

What do I mean by "perennial brokenheartedness"? Well for me, it appears outwardly in the way that I cannot ignore suffering, real  or fictional, human or animal, which gives rise to my rather antisocial inability to watch or read much in the way of TV, films or novels. Inwardly, it is an inability, especially in prayer, to turn my heart away from pain.

It gets embarrassing too. Once, years ago, appalled at my own hard-heartedness in prayer, I prayed for the gift of tears. Bad idea. That's the kind of prayer God seems to take a particular delight in answering. Now, of course, I can't stop my helpless tears when I pray, or get involved in certain sorts of conversations.

Of course I've often tried to minimise such things. Even these days, it's embarrassing enough for women to be this way. When men do it it's downright odd. Besides, the more I can minimise it to myself, the more I can insulate myself from the transferred suffering of others, as well as from whatever internal suffering of my own is going on.

Over the past few months, God has been finding me out again. I can’t pretend any more. I seem to be becoming transparent, leached by a light beyond me, thin and half-seen even in my own mirror. I’m not quite sure what I am becoming—I only know whose I am. Christe eleison…

Thursday, May 27, 2010

More treasures of darkness…

The final word for mysticism after the optimistic explosion that we usually call hope, and the ensuing sense of safety, is an experience of deep rest.  It’s the verb I’m told that is most used by the mystics: “resting in God.”  All this striving and this need to perform, climb, and achieve becomes, on some very real level, unnecessary.  It’s already here, now.  I can stop all this overproduction and over proving of myself.  That’s Western and American culture.  It’s not the Gospel at all.

We’ve all imbibed the culture of unrest so deeply.  What got me into men’s work is that I find males are especially driven in that direction.  We just cannot believe that we could be respected or admired or received or loved without some level of performance.  We are all performers and overachievers, and we think “when we do that” we will finally be lovable.  Once you ride on the performance principle, you don’t even allow yourself to achieve it.  Even when you “achieve” a good day of “performing,” it will never be enough, because it is inherently self-advancing and therefore self-defeating.  You might call it “spiritual capitalism.”

Richard Rohr, adapted from Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gate

I was just thinking about how to start a post apologising for having been such a blogging slacker over the past few weeks—Jan has had yet more major surgery, though she is now recovering really well—when I came across this from Richard Rohr. How easily we bloggers get drawn into the way of achievement, anxiously scanning our inboxes for comments, clicking on the little “show details” link against our blog in Google Reader to check our weekly stats, when all we really are hoping to do is share what God has shown us, the “treasures of darkness” [links to my own post of that title, quoting Isaiah 45:3] that he has brought to light for us. The way of Christ is the way of suffering, of patience, receiving—not the way of achievement, acquisition, reputation.

Things are still as ambiguous as they were in that post, and of course nursing someone under these circumstances is difficult: an extraordinary mixture of conflicting emotions that even so shows up more and more clearly how we depend on God for each breath, let alone each day stumbling in the footsteps of Christ. But God is good, better than the best of us could ever imagine, and he truly does work in all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28) if only we will keep listening in even those darkest places.

Talking with a friend the other day, we realised that indeed God does not necessarily protect his people from the ills that are part of living in a fallen world, and yet he does protect us in them:

But now, this is what the LORD says—
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the LORD, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour…”

(Isaiah 43:1-3a)

Why should we be exempt from the difficulties and losses of our sisters and brothers? We are sinners also: it is only Christ in us who can transmute what we are into something of value. Only by following his steps through the darkest valley can we have light to share.

I’d feel unreasonably diffident saying things like this, in case someone thought I was giving my own little troubles undue weight, if the saints and martyrs, from Dietrich Bonhoeffer all the way back to Paul and Silas in jail after their flogging, didn’t say the same thing… Bonheoffer in particular saw so clearly, even in the concentration camp, that, “To endure the cross is not tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ.”

Monday, May 17, 2010

Lord, have mercy…

Lord, have mercy.

Have mercy on my darkness,

my weakness,

my confusion.

Have mercy on my infidelity,

my cowardice,

my turning about in circles,

my wandering,

my evasions.

I do not ask for anything but such mercy, always, in everything,


My life here – a little solidity and very much ashes.

Almost everything is ashes. What I have prized most is ashes.

What I have attended to least is, perhaps…

a little solid.

Lord, have mercy.

Guide me,

make me want again to be holy,

to be a man of God, even though in desperateness and confusion.

I do not necessarily ask for clarity, a plain way, but only to go according to your love,

to follow your mercy, to trust your mercy.

I want to seek nothing at all, if this is possible.

But only to be led without looking and without seeking.

For thus to seek is to find.

[Thomas Merton, Journals, August 2, 1960, IV.28 – with thanks to]

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


All this “women-stuff” is not only important; it is half of conversion, half of salvation, half of wholeness, half of God’s work of art.  I believe this mystery is imaged in the Woman of the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse: “pregnant, and in labour, crying aloud in the pangs of childbirth… and finally escaping into the desert until her time” (Revelation 12:1-6).

Could this be the time?  It is always the time!  The world is tired of Pentagons and pyramids, empires and corporations that only abort God’s child.  This women-stuff is very important, and it has always been important; more than this white male priest ever imagined or desired!  My God was too small and too male.  Much that the feminists have said is very prophetic and necessary for the Church and the world.  It is time for the woman to come out of her desert refuge and for the men to welcome her.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations p. 279, day 290

More good sense from Rohr – perhaps we in the Church of England need to hear this clearly, as Andy Wilkes suggests in his recent post about Bishop Barbara Harris, whose linked clip I would strongly recommend…

Monday, May 10, 2010

Richard Rohr, why you need to hear him…

“Most of us assume that the self we’re meant to ‘die to’ is the body self, the sexual self, and the emotional self. We assume that if you just get rid of your body or emotion or sex then we’ll fly towards God. But there’s no evidence for that. In fact, quite the contrary.

“Thomas Merton gave us the language of the true self and false self, instead of the body self and spirit self. It’s not your body self that needs to die, but your false self — your persona, or in Freudian terms your ego, the person you think you need to be, the persona you need to live up to.”

The positive spin on all this talk about death-to-self is that we should, he suggests, passionately, constantly choose God, and union with God. “Prayer is a daily choice to live out of the Great Self, not the small self — the God self, not the you self.”

The act of contemplation helps us to observe the “unobserved” or false self, and by so doing, to gradually detach ourselves from it. But it is not something that comes naturally in our culture. “We are a capitalist society, into accumulation, not detachment,” Fr Rohr says. “That’s why people are attracted to Buddhism. Buddhists have kept their vocabulary and their honesty about the need for detachment up to date, whereas we’re just people who have invested heavily in our own opinions and rightness, with disastrous results.”

The secret to detachment, he suggests, is to learn how to live more fully in “the now, not the past or the future”.

Some people do discover “presence”, he explains, “in love-making, in nature, in the presence of great music. As a spiritual teacher, that would be my whole desire, to say: ‘Don’t just look to the churchy moments.’ If you’re contemplative, you’re going to find these moments everywhere. And once that begins, life is no longer divided into the sacred and the secular: it’s one world.”

Perhaps the main threat to the rise in interest in authentic contemplation is that it becomes just another individualistic pop-spirituality technique, or a therapeutic tool alone.

This is something Fr Rohr is painfully aware of. “In some circles, contemplation is the new trendy thing; but when you draw close to some of these people, you find they have no love for the poor or the outsider. It’s just a new way to feel pious.”

From a 2008 Church Times interview with Fr. Richard Rohr OFM

This interview neatly sums up why I am always so excited about Fr. Richard’s teaching, and why I quote him so often on this blog. If you can, I would urge you to go and hear him at the Third Order sponsored conference this September in London. Oh, I know sometimes there are things in Rohr’s writings that come over, especially out of context, as if he is just another trendy guru of the latest Christian craze, or worse, as if he is just a Christian face for some generalised New Age spirituality. But it really isn’t so. Rohr is a Franciscan through and through, the genuine article, and if you listen to his homilies you will get a sense of how far he is from being a product of his age. As far as the Emerging Church is concerned, it’s much more nearly the case that his age is a product of him!

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Of and with the poor…

We can no longer be satisfied by simply being the Church for the poor from our position of establishment.  We must realize that sometimes that very generosity, that very attempt to be good to other people, has kept us in a position of power and superiority.  Somehow we must be of and with the poor, and then be ready for some mistrust and even criticism.
Dom Helder Camara (1909-1999), the holy Archbishop of Recife, Brazil, said it so truthfully, “As long as I fed the poor, they called me a saint.  When I asked, ‘Why are there so many poor people?’ they called me a communist.”
Richard Rohr, April 2010
As Franciscans, I think it is crucial that we face this question. The First and Second Orders, by virtue of their vocation to the Evangelical Counsels, live it out in common with their sisters and brothers in other religious communities—but we as Tertiaries need to examine ourselves rather rigorously on this point, I feel. Though, as our Principles state, “we possess property and earn money to support ourselves and our families,” we must consider how Rohr’s words here question our own vocation.

I don’t have an answer, of course, to these questions. The path God has somehow laid out for me has brought me closer to the way of poverty than some of my sisters and brothers, but this is through what might be called (if you leave God out of it!) force of circumstance: I can claim no holiness, or acuity of discernment, for myself. All that life since the farm accident that stopped me working some years ago has done is to give me a different perspective, a way of seeing that I didn’t have before; a cure, maybe, for a blindness common to so many educated people of my generation, who have not had to live frugally amid abundance. But it has not shown me any specific advice for anyone else… Maybe each of us has to plot our own course through this land of inequalities—it would be so hard to offer advice without appearing to manipulate, or to offer criticism.
One thing I do know. As Franciscans we must look clearly, with wide open eyes, at the poor who live among us, quite as much as at the glamorously poor of what used to be called the Third World. (I am using deliberately provocative language here!) We must set aside the dark glasses of prejudice, the tinted lenses of class, and look, really look, into the eyes of the Big Issue sellers, into the bundles of rags under the city bridges, into the doors of the temporary accommodation dotted even among the prosperous and leafy villages of Dorset, and allow them to ask their own questions of us, of our own vocation to the Third Order of St. Francis…

Friday, May 07, 2010

Precious poverty…

Above all else St. Francis stands for a certain kind of love, a love that empties itself, a love that is so secure that it can be poor. It can let go of its reputation, securities, comforts, and money; because it has found its riches and comforts on another level.

In every age, Francis will be called the little poor man (“IL Poverello”). He was free enough to walk out of the system of rewards, status and security in 13th Century Italy.  He changed sides intentionally.  I remember when my novice master in 1961 told us, almost whispering, “We really are communists!’’  Francis named our community “the brothers of the lower class” (friars minor). Today we call that making a “preferential option for the poor,” and people think it is something new and dangerous.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, p. 275, day 286

Francis was right. Our poverty, our willingness to go without “reputation, securities, comforts, and money” really is our most precious possession in this world. With this power at our disposal, we are invincible, though the world might see us as pitiably insignificant. We are like Christ on the road to the Cross, or like St. Paul, when he wrote:

I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me… (Philippians 4.11-13)

Monday, May 03, 2010

Kinds of simplicity…

One biblical description of poverty is simplicity. People poor in this way are centred in chosen values instead of possessions. And because their life is so centred in clear values—usually God, family, and physical work—they normally don't need to compensate by spending their afternoons in shopping malls, buying more things, or filling up their boredom with distractions.

Few things are needed or desired by the one who lives simply because life is centred on another level of value. And maybe it isn't always specifically religious; maybe it's music, art, nature, volunteerism, or working for a great ideal.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, p. 254, day 265 - Source: Letting Go: A Spirituality of Subtraction

This is one of the best expressions I’ve encountered of the very practical call to simplicity that many of us seem to stumble across on the way, if we seek to follow Francis on the way of the Cross. As Rohr points out, it isn’t in itself specifically Franciscan; it isn’t even specifically Christian, though as many artists, writers, and maybe particularly musicians have discovered over the years, it’s a hard road without a lived and passionate faith to strengthen you…

Brother Ramon SSF says (Franciscan Spirituality, p. 68):

In the Church… we are confronted by the fearful and blazing light of Francis. We can either turn away like the rich young man faced by Jesus’ radical demand, or allow the Franciscan light to dispel our avaricious darkness…

It was not that Francis was a social reformer or an ideological politician warning what love of money would do to the fabric of our society. Rather, he was a follower of Jesus who saw what it would do to spiritual awareness and sensitivity.

The compulsive worship of capital leads the individual and society to a denial of the compassion that relinquishes more than is necessary and shares in simplicity.

It is all there in the gospel. Jesus preached and lived such radical simplicity clearly, and Francis showed it could be done. But no doubt we shall find ways to evade them both!

Br. Ramon has put his finger on it. The Franciscan, the gospel, call to simplicity is not all call to change society—how could it be?—but a call to rescue ourselves from the sinking ship, to put put out the call to everyone we meet, “Save yourselves!”